Tuesday, August 4, 2009

An Oasis of Calm and Space in Dhaka's Biggest Slum

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

(Saifur, a carpenter from Korail, surrounded by kids on a bamboo platform in the Banani Lake.)

If you go from Gulshan to Banani using the newly built concrete bridge, you can see the outskirts of the Korail slum on the other side of the lake. Beyond the lakeside huts - which are erected on bamboo pillars - there are the homes of about 100.000 people. Several times I crossed the bridge and saw people putting pillars into the muddy lakebed as a “foundation” for new houses. However, when I visit Korail it turns out that the latest structure erected is not a house but an oasis of calm and space for the people of Korail.
Although there is a kind of square at the southern edge of Korail which is used for cultural programs, sports and markets, open space is very limited. The immediate impression is that a place where people could relax in calm surroundings, enjoy an open view or even undertake a romantic liaison would be hard to find in such a crowded area.

The same idea occurred to Khondaker Hasibul Kabir, a young architect lecturer from BRAC University who has been living in Korail for two years. Before he lived in an apartment but felt lonely there and incomplete without a garden to look after. However, once he moved to this area he discussed a lot of ideas together with the community and a platform made from bamboo (where I meet him) is one such idea that became reality. Local carpenters (mistri) contributed labor to the project, while Kabir sponsored it from his private pocket. One of the carpenters is Saifur who I also meet at the platform. He brought about twenty years of working experience into the project - he has never been to school but learnt by doing from the very beginning of his working life. He has been living in Korail since 1991 and is well known in the community. Usually, people call him if they want to have something built and together with the client he plans the design and the costs of the material. However, sometimes he is given full responsibility and looks after the whole construction process from start to finish.

(People from Korail cutting the first sod for the platform.)

“The most difficult thing with these kind of structures is the starting process”, Saifur explains. First they had to build a scaffold from which to put the pillars into the mud. After that the pillars were linked by cross-bars to ensure the strength of the structure and a bamboo platform was set on top of it. Finally a roof with both bamboo and plastic layers was made and a small fence put up.

(During the construction process.)

It took three months to finish the construction. Some private businessmen disturbed the process with a claim for the land where the platform was built. “When they saw that we do not want anything commercial, they never came back and we just continued our work after a while”, Kabir says.The purpose of the platform is as a playground for children and a place for people to sit, relax and enjoy the view over Gulshan Lake. At night a few people also sleep here. “Sometimes wedding couples also come here to get themselves photographed with Gulshan in the background”, Kabir tells me.

(A girl from Korail lounges on the platform, looking at Gulshan.)

I can easily lounge here for a whole Friday afternoon surrounded by kids and other people who are constantly coming and going. I almost forget that the biggest slum in Dhaka is only a stone’s throw away.

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